The last time Alexander Payne and Paul Giamatti came together was for Sideways (2004), which ended up being widely known as one of the best movies of that decade. Almost 20 years later, They reunite again for The Holdovers, which also stars Da’Vine Joy Randolph and newcomer Dominic Sessa apart from Paul Giamatti. It follows a curmudgeonly instructor (Paul Giamatti) at a New England prep school Barton, who is forced to remain on campus during Christmas break to babysit the handful of students with nowhere to go.
Paul Giamatti plays Paul Hunham, a reviled ancient history teacher, who was once a student at Barton himself. He is a loner and has strict morals with no room for complacency with his students. Dominic Sessa plays Angus Tully, who finds himself stuck as a “holdover” at Barton over the winter break, with Paul as his chaperone. They are also accompanied by Barton’s cook Mary, who grieving the recent loss of her son. The three of them build an unexpected bond as they try to find their way through the Christmas season.
Alexander Payne is a highly decorated director, with most of his movies getting positive reception from both audiences and critics alike. But his last feature Downsized (2017), had polarizing opinions. He returns 6 years later with The Holdovers, which is not written by himself. This is only the second time that he has directed a script not written by him. But he does not show a shred of discomfort or uncertainty in his direction and aces it in that department. The movie is based in the 70s, and he does exceptionally well to get the aesthetics right and takes the viewer back to that time.
David Hemingson’s script is absolutely endearing and he gives us a plethora of hilarious scenes that hit the bullseye with the humor. He also infuses so much sentimentality in the story, and there’s almost something melancholic about this story. It also feels like a redemption story in a sense given the way the characters’ arcs are designed. The simplicity of the plot is also one of its greatest strengths as the characters are so relatable and you are immediately invested in the narrative. The screenplay isn’t incredibly deep and layered which isn’t necessarily a bad thing as it works really well for what it is.
The trio share incredible chemistry together, particularly Paul and Dominic. Most of the scenes are with just the three of them together, but you never get bored of watching them make one mess after another. All 3 of them deliver incredible performances, but the standout is definitely Paul Giamatti. His character is so unlikable, and he is just the perfect choice for this role. He doesn’t directly show a lot of emotions, but Giamatti has this mesmerizing way of delivering complex emotions just through his eyes. Alexander Payne seems to know exactly how to bring out the best of Paul Giamatti.
Da’Vine Joy Randolph is excellent as well. She is most mature and subtle out of the three, and often the voice of reason for the two stubborn boys. She is personally dealing with so much but finds a lot of support from the unlikely sources of Angus and Paul. She also has these witty and clever comebacks for them that hit the bullseye every time. Newcomer Dominic Sessa also does really well. I would expect all 3 actors are likely to get Oscar nominations for their performances, particularly Giamatti and Randolph. It will probably also get into Best Picture and Best Director for Payne.
The Holdovers is a hilariously touching coming-of-age comedy that is simplistic yet delivers thoughtful messages with warmth. This feel-good story of companionship and empathy almost feels like a Christmas classic. Alexander Payne once again shows why he is one of the best directors of this generation. Paul Giamatti gives his career-best performance in a movie that is immaculately made from start to finish. This gem is an absolute must-watch.
The Holdovers opens in select cinemas on October 27 and goes wide on November 10.